Executive Coaching Gives Leaders a Chance to Change

One-on-one coaching allows leaders the opportunity to overcome problems ranging from poor public speaking to a lack of executive presence.

By Annie Beecham, Marketing Coordinator, Connect the Dots Consulting

John*, a successful executive at a major automotive company, was quickly moving up the ranks. With his latest promotion, not only did John’s responsibilities grow, but also his role with the company was advancing from internal to external. While John was qualified for the position, his manager realized he was not completely prepared for some of his new duties, including acting as a public representative of the company. John lacked executive presence and interpersonal engagement skills. Compounding the problem, English was his second language, and his previous roles with the company were from an engineering perspective. With public speaking engagements and press conferences on the horizon, a change had to be made.

Enter Brenda Hampel and Erika Lamont, executive coaches, founding partners of Connect the Dots Consulting and coauthors of “Solving Employee Performance Problems: How to Spot Problems Early, Take Appropriate Action, and Bring out the Best in Everyone.” Hampel and Lamont work directly with high-level leaders and their managers to solve issues that are impeding their ability to lead successfully. The Columbus, OH-based consultants are an objective third party that organizations can use as a resource to help leaders address development and performance gaps.

One problem Hampel and Lamont encounter often occurs when a leader experiences a promotion from a technical leadership role to a strategic leadership role—moving out of a senior management role into a director role, for example. “A very common situation that we deal with is taking an individual who has been a technical leader—and by technical leader that could be a person who’s had a background in engineering, in finance, in IT, in operations, production, whatever it might be—and now they’re being asked to lead,” Hampel says.

But, from a manager’s perspective, confronting one of your employees about an ongoing development or performance issue is usually not easy. As Hampel and Lamont have found, it’s frequently the case that the manager doesn’t know how to even begin the conversation. When a manager repeatedly avoids approaching, or approaches but sees no results, a skill gap—lack of executive presence or an ineffective management style, for example—it is time for third-party assistance.

The concerned manager may approach the company’s HR department for advice. “The typical scenario would be that a manager goes to HR and says, ‘This employee is just not cutting it. Let’s talk about what we might do.’” Hampel says. “HR or the manager would say, ‘Let’s get this person a coach.’ And then HR contacts us.”

After the initial contact from HR, Hampel or Lamont meet with an HR partner and/or the manager. First, they assess the issue by gathering information from the manager, direct reports of the leader, and any other relevant stakeholders in the situation about their perceptions of the employee. “We ask questions of the HR partner and/or the manager to really surface how much of this problem the person is aware of and what has been done to address it. ‘What kind of feedback have you given, if any?’’ Lamont says. “So we get a current state. We also get an idea of how important it is to the person’s job.”

Hampel or Lamont’s next step is to define what success will look like in the individual case. “Once we have a clear understanding with the manager about the current state, we get very specific agreement on what success will like.” Hampel says.

After speaking with all of the other people who are affected by the employee, Hampel and Lamont meet their coachee. “In talking with that leader who needs coaching, our next step is to find out: How self aware are they of that?” Hampel says. “Do they understand they have this challenge? Andare they willing to make an investment to change this? If they’re not, and they don’t get it, then coaching isn’t going to help them.”

“You’d be surprised how many times everybody is talking about it, and the person doesn’t know that it’s an problem,” Lamont says.

During the initial meeting with the coachee, Hampel or Lamont sometimes use the assessment tools to help the coachee understand their current state. During the next four to eight months, Hampel or Lamont meet with their coachee every few weeks and give assignments to him or her based on the employee’s role and the objectives of the coaching. The goal is always that the assignments allow the employee to immediately use a skill or idea they’ve discussed with their coach.

They also meet with the coachee’s manager several times during the coaching engagement to discuss progress made. “The way we measure progress is by having regular check-ins with the manager and/or other key stakeholders who see the person in action,” Hampel says. “We take those check-in points, and we say, “OK, now that we’re at the four-month mark, this person has made 75 percent progress against the goal. Here’s what we recommend to bridge the 25 percent gap”

In the real-life example of the automobile company executive, after the HR department approached Hampel to coach the new executive, Hampel spent six months working with John. Hampel coached John by videotaping him giving presentations and critiquing his performance. “He was an awesome student. He would give me presentations, and he would tell me the objective of the presentation. We talked about the audience.” Hampel says. “And then we watched the videotape and assessed him against very specific areas I had identified that he needed to change.”

One reason that Hampel’s coaching was so effective with John was because John’s manager was engaged in the process. “I had regular conversations with his manager and got feedback from his manager. I was able to observe him in company presentations, I saw his delivery style—that’s invaluable for a coach.”

Changing Behavior

Coaching a leader such as John who is ready and willing to make a change is one thing, but what about the employee who is less than eager to accept his or her flaws? Lamont worked with an executive, David*, in the manufacturing industry who, it seemed, possessed few redeeming qualities. “The organization was ready to fire this particular executive. They didn’t think he could turn his behavior around,” Lamont says. “He had alienated people, he was flexing his authority inappropriately, he was giving directives and not including people in decision making, and he was behaving inappropriately with his peer group.”

Unfortunately, while all of David’s employees had complained to HR about him (one woman even saved and compiled unprofessional e-mails from David), no one had spoken frankly to David about his flawed style of leading. With Lamont’s guidance, David’s manager made it clear to David that it was a serious situation and there would not be a place for David in the organization without an observable alteration. That clarity between manager and employee was likely what persuaded David to engage himself fully in the coaching.

Lamont began meeting with David, and over an agreed-upon period, she coached him to become a better communicator and leader. They focused first on something that seemed simple—e-mail. David’s e-mail communication was abrasive, and the way he communicated in staff meetings and personal interactions needed help, too. One assignment was that for a certain period of time each day, David had to leave his office and interact with his employees instead of firing off e-mails from the comfort of his own desk. Lamont regularly gathered feedback from key stakeholders that she integrated into her coaching.

The ultimate outcome was a turnaround in David’s behavior that was noticed by everyone. On a recent business trip, one of David’s peers told him he had noticed a significant change in his behavior. “[David] acknowledged to me that he wasn’t aware of how off track he was,” Lamont says. “He now is much more aware of how his behavior affected the people around him.”

*Names have been changed

Brenda Hampel and Erika Lamont’s new book “Solving Employee Performance Problems: How to Spot Problems Early, Take Appropriate Action, and Bring Out the Best in Everyone,” is a guide for organizations to find solutions to employee performance issues and to get the most return on investment out of all of their employees. The consultants, along with third author Anne Bruce, put into words what they have been expounding to coaching clients for years.

Hampel and Lamont’s consulting firm, Connect the Dots, specializes in onboarding, leadership coaching, and team dynamics solutions. Their clients include Sara Lee, Audi/Volkswagon of America, TJX Companies, and The Ohio State University. To contact Hampel and Lamont, or to learn more about Connect the Dots and what they can do for organizations, visit http://www.connectthedotsconsulting.com.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.